What Is “Conditioned” Problematic Porn Use?

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Robert Weiss PhD, LCSW, CSAT

Last week I introduced the concept of problematic porn use, noting there are two primary categories: traditional trauma-driven addiction, and conditioned compulsivity. In that post we discussed the specifics of traditional addiction; this week, our focus is the conditioned use of porn.

This new and rapidly emerging subcategory of problematic porn users differs from traditional trauma-driven porn addicts in two significant ways:

  1. Conditioned porn users lack the unresolved early-life trauma that typically drives addictive behaviors.
  2. Conditioned porn users’ sex lives almost exclusively revolve around pornography (and porn-like online activity such as sexting, camgirls/boys, and mutual masturbation via webcam).

Like traditional porn addicts, this group is preoccupied with porn to the point of obsession, they’ve lost control over their use of porn, and they’re experiencing negative consequences related to their use of porn. As such, they absolutely qualify as porn addicts. They do not, however, present with a trauma-driven need to escape from and numb their emotions, as we see with traditional addicts.

So why do these individuals turn to porn over and over despite the problems it causes in their lives? As stated above, it appears they have become “conditioned” toward the compulsive use of pornography.

Typically, conditioned problematic porn users start viewing porn at a young age, often before puberty hits. And then they fail to move beyond this easily accessed sexual outlet. For these individuals, porn serves as both sex education and sexual fulfillment. The unfortunate result of this is that their emotional and psychological development in terms of sexuality and relationships can be stunted – beginning and ending with what they learn from porn. As such, their ability to form and maintain meaningful real-world romantic and sexual attachments may not develop or may not fully develop in the usual ways.

Often, conditioned porn users will continue to compulsively use porn without recognizing (or admitting) they have a problem until they decide they want to have a real-world relationship and realize they have no idea how to do that. Other times, they recognize their problem only when they attempt to be sexual with a real person and find that they can’t perform. This is known as porn-induced erectile dysfunction (PIED), and it is relatively common among both traditionally addicted and conditioned porn users – including young males in their sexual prime.

This conditioned compulsivity usually develops because pornography presents no risk of rejection, no risk of sexual failure, and no risk of committing an embarrassing social faux pas. Better yet, there are no strange odors or unexpected physical sensations. Porn is completely controllable. All that users get is a constant and constantly changing barrage of hyper-stimulating sexual intensity.

What’s not to like, right?

Sadly, these often very young porn users become conditioned to porn to the point where real-world interactions can’t and don’t match up. So porn becomes their go-to sexual outlet. They get hooked on pixel sex, and, in time, they start to look and behave the same as traditional porn addicts, experiencing the same basic life problems.

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If you or someone you care about is struggling with pornography, help is available. Seeking Integrity offers inpatient treatment for sex and porn addicts, as well as low-cost online workgroups. At the same time, SexandRelationshipHealing.com offers a variety of free webinars and drop-in discussion groups, podcasts, and more.